City, county must speak with a unified voice about hurricane recovery.
The floodwaters had barely receded and our jean cuffs were still damp as national attention shifted to Hurricane Irma in Florida and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Now New Orleans is on alert as Tropical Storm Nate approaches the Gulf Coast.
And yet, as everyone trying to rebuild lives in the wake of Hurricane Harvey knows, our work here in the Houston area has barely begun.
Federal and state governments have important roles to play in the recovery effort. We have previously outlined poststorm agendas for national politicians and elected leaders in Austin. But in the end, city and county officials bear the ultimate responsibility.
Houston is a city renowned for leaping to challenges, to meeting the future on its own terms and to getting hard jobs done right. Here are a few of the tasks at hand.
1. Build local unity
Houston and Harris County must share a single vision and speak in a unified voice about flood prevention needs. State and federal leaders will soon start writing major recovery bills, and we will be able to draw down more if we’re all pulling in the same direction.
“This is a negotiation,” former Shell CEO Marvin Odum, whom Mayor Sylvester Turner picked to lead recovery efforts, told the editorial board. Negotiations don’t work if local officials contradict or undercut each other. Efforts should focus on the big three infrastructure projects — a third reservoir, bayou improvements and coastal storm surge protection. Consensus will also be needed on a new regional flood-control district and the future of the unincorporated county.
Collective buy-in will also make it easier to prevent partisan bickering and rebuff any reluctant developers and other interest groups that want to maintain a flood-prone status quo.
2. Establish new revenue sources
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett is the first to say he hates property taxes, but that’s the lousy funding source our state government has given him. Our state leadership needs to cast aside its war on local control to help city and county governments find effective ways to pay for what they need in response to this disaster. Until then, the city and county should not be reluctant to raise revenue on their own. We may need higher property taxes to pay for county flood prevention work. We clearly need to abandon Houston’s revenue cap. Whatever efforts local governments undertake to protect the public from future floods will cost money, and they will need new sources of cash.
3. Improve regulations
Building codes must reflect a new normal in which 500-year floods have become an annual menace. Higher foundations, pier and beam construction, stricter runoff mitigation and stringent inspections for roofs and windows all have to be part of this change. Bagby Street serves as an model of water-absorbent road construction that should be adopted across the region.
Both Emmett and Turner have spoken about the need for better rules, and they can back those words with action by ensuring that county and city buildings set an example for sustainable and resilient development, and this includes downtown courthouse facilities.
Local leaders must first follow their own regulations, too. Houston was caught spending developer fees intended for new green space on park amenities in 2013. Harris County is guilty of a similar sin with funds intended for water detention, Jim Blackburn, co-director of the SSPEED Center at Rice University, told the editorial board.
4. Go after polluters and other bad actors
The Harris County district attorney and county attorney can help the rebuilding effort by targeting the companies and industrial sites responsible for the dangerous chemicals and waste that Harvey’s floodwaters spread throughout our neighborhoods. Homeowners and other taxpayers shouldn’t be stuck with the bill for cleaning up someone else’s pollution.
Criminal and civil law enforcement also needs to protect people from being exploited in the midst of disaster, whether from deceitful repair companies, misleading charities or anyone hoping to take advantage of people in a moment of despair.
This includes scrutiny of politically connected contractors scheming to get rich off public rebuilding funds.
5. Equip and train the Houston Fire Department for flood rescues
Houston today suffers more major floods than major fires. But Hurricane Harvey once again exposed the shortcomings of the Houston Fire Department’s preparations for citywide flooding. HFD’s boat fleet hasn’t expanded significantly since Hurricane Rita hit the Texas coast in 2005, even though the city’s population has grown by more than 200,000 residents. It’s abundantly clear the city doesn’t have enough boats to deploy during floods and the fire department still has no swift-water rescue strike team. Houston fire chiefs have asked for more funding for flood training and equipment, but their requests have been rejected by elected leaders. HFD’s shortcomings during floods doesn’t start at neighborhood fire stations, it starts at City Hall. Mayor Turner and City Council’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee must undertake a thorough review of what equipment and training our fire department needs to adequately respond to flooding events. Beyond that, we renew our call for a blue-ribbon commission to study how the myriad public safety services now provided by the HFD should be delivered in the 21st century.
6. Create a Lone Star Navy
When television coverage of the Tax Day flood showed children floating out of apartments in refrigerators, an armada of volunteers brought their boats to the rescue. Hurricane Harvey once again proved how private boat owners can save lives. Our neighbors in Louisiana who proudly called themselves the Cajun Navy not only came to our rescue in our hour of need, they also provided us with an outstanding example we should follow. Emergency management officials need to organize our own local navy, encouraging civilian boaters to register for disaster duty so that their rescue efforts can be deployed to maximum effect during floods.
7. Transform buyouts into green space
Buyouts will be inevitable for hundreds, if not thousands, of homes in flood zones. Golf courses will hopefully be repurposed for flood control. But what happens next remains uncertain. Local leaders need to start working on something resembling the Bayou Greenways 2020 plan to turn these areas into parks. Sustainable funding for upkeep will be key if we want these future green spaces to serve as public amenities rather than fenced-off mud holes. Buffalo Bayou Park remains a model for doing this right. Sprawling and inaccessible detention ponds — such as those at Loop 610 and Brays Bayou — should be avoided.
8. Implement better flood alert technology
In an era when drivers can monitor traffic jams on their smart phones, they also should have the ability to check whether flood prone roads and freeways are underwater. Houston TranStar maintains a network of television cameras the public can access via its website, which also provides some limited information on high water spots. But Harris County needs a network of cameras and other sensors focused on key streets and intersections with a history of flooding. Drivers should be able to log on and check flood conditions on roadways before they leave home and get trapped on deluged streets.
9. Ensure economic resilience at a personal level
Natural disasters like Harvey destroy more than homes and cars — they destroy families’ economic stations. Local governments cannot be stingy with resources needed to keep people financially afloat. City Hall took the right step last week by allocating funding for affordable housing, but Houston has a poor track record of spending effectively. Now is the time to get it right.
Apartment prices are rising at a moment when renters can least afford it. The mayor should ask the governor to declare an emergency and allow temporary rent control.
The city and county should also serve as coordinators for local charity to ensure that the private sector doesn’t overlook any opportunities to help or waste resources through duplication.
10. Build for Houston’s economic future
We not only need to think big, we need to think big picture. After the Galveston hurricane of 1900, Houston city leaders immediately saw an economic opportunity and expedited the dredging of a ship channel. As a result, Houston boomed and Galveston withered. At a time when we’re rebuilding in the wake of a disaster — and as new battery technology threatens to make gasoline-powered automobiles obsolete — we should also think about what industries our oil and gas based city must attract to ensure its economic strength in the 21st century.